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I’m due for a meeting with my supervisor this afternoon. I don’t know how it’s going to go, because I think this meeting is going to be a lot different from any other we’ve had over the last 3 years. Usually, we’re very focused, and can tick our way through a list of items on the agenda without getting too immersed in anything. We can do that because usually, my progress is brilliant and everything’s fine. We’re usually done in less than 2 hours and we get through everything we planned to talk about. There’s a lot of “Well done!” and “You’re doing fine!” and other compliments that give me a spring in my step for the day.

But today is different!

Today I’m going to walk into my supervisor’s office, sit down, and tell her I’m stuck. I’m going to tell her I’ve arrived at a point where I’ve just about finished my final analysis, have half my thesis written in draft, and am less than 6 months away from submitting, and yet my mind is completely blank and I am utterly confused as to what I’m supposed to be doing.

I’m going to say that I’m good at running stats on the computer and reviewing the literature, but I cannot for the life of me make sense of the results or even understand what it is I’m looking for or want to find out.

I’m going to confess I haven’t the slightest idea what’s going on, that I haven’t done anything even bordering on productive in the last 3 or 4 days, and that even last week and the week before all I did was some data clean-up and some analyses I don’t understand.

Basically, I’m going to declare I am a useless, hopeless failure and will never stand a chance of finishing my thesis, surviving my viva, or getting my PhD.

At this point my supervisor will probably butt in (as much as I love her to bits she does have this little irritating habit) and insist this is completely untrue and that I can, and in fact must, finish this project, because I have a long and fruitful career ahead of me during which I will become a professor by 30, publish 500 papers, attract billions of pounds of research funding, accumulate a lab full of postdocs the size of a small army, and generally be a critically acclaimed academic celebrity internationally recognised for my profound and unquestionable expertise in a tiny, obscure patch of research that nobody, not even the big cheeses in my topic area, has ever heard of, nor would have even the slightest inclination to be interested in finding out more about.

Blah blah blah.

This is all great.

The fact is that none of this is going to happen until and unless I write my thesis. Conceded, it isn’t going to happen anyway, but if I want to at least upgrade my chances from impossible to implausible, I’ve got to get myself back into a disciplined work routine that will put me on track to finishing. This prospect is extremely daunting when I think about the fact that the two main things I have left to do before I finish – interpreting and writing – are the ones that make me the most nervous in the research process. I find interpreting data terrifying. I have to interpret not just the meaning of my own results, but link that with the results other people have obtained, and I become acutely aware that I risk misinterpreting my results, or, worse, misinterpreting other people’s results, which puts me in the uncomfortable position of being criticised my them for failing to understand their work properly. Following interpretation, I get to writing it all up, which is tedious and frustrating. Just when you think you’ve written it all out clearly, you re-read it only to find your text unclear, long-winded, or unable to convey your key message concisely enough. Once you’ve fixed all that, then up come the typos, the grammar errors, the formatting imperfections, and hey presto, it’s the perfect wall for any perfectionist to bang their head against.

An immediate example of this occurring is the fact that my first thought upon finishing that last sentence was “you can’t finish a sentence with a preposition!”

I have no idea what’s going to happen at the meeting. Right now I feel blank – the same blankness I’ve been feeling, in immediate memory, for at least 2 weeks, and probably the same blankness that I’ve been describing as ‘confusion’ or ‘inspirationlessness’ in the last 6 months or so. It’s just a general loss of mental energy and enthusiasm for my work – something my other supervisor has told me she experienced towards the end of her PhD as well – a mental state in which you walk around, sit at your desk, eat, sleep, and breathe with a relentless “WTF??” spaciness in your head that seems to prevent any kind of intellectually productive or progressive thoughts from entering or being created.

It’s maddening.

Honestly, I’ve never felt so blank, confused, inspirationless, and mad in my life. I’ve come to a standstill in this PhD. I’m standing, thoughtless and speechless, months away from submission, and I have no idea what to do or think about anything related to anything.

It’s just…ok, I’m going to stop typing now.

You are right in demand­ing that an artist should take an intel­li­gent atti­tude to his work, but you con­fuse two things: solv­ing a prob­lem and stat­ing a prob­lem cor­rectly. It is only the sec­ond that is oblig­a­tory for the artist. -Chekhov

If only we could say the same for scientists!

Even if depicting a problem as it really is is sufficient to accomplish literary art, in science we must go beyond this, and actually solve a problem. And while we may be less eloquent in the literary sense, there is all the more expectation of an answer, a discovery, and a revelatory conclusion.

If only you could see our modern world of science and academia, dear Chekhov. A world of intense funding competition, stringent outcome-focused research, and esteem derived from citations and impact factors. I wonder what you’d have said.

You are not just an artist, remember, you are a physician too. You are a scientist.

We have a problem problem in science. Not only do we have to state the problem correctly, we also have to solve it. Or, in the case of science PhDs, at least do some pilot studies or literature searching that might lay out the foundations of developing a strategy to consider how we may devise a way of thinking about contemplating the prospect of speculating how we could potentially solve it (pending further research, obviously).

This problem problem could go two ways. Sure, scientists try to solve problems, and through solving problems, try to change the world. Sometimes they change the world for better, and sometimes for worse. I suppose it depends on whether the problem is stated correctly in the first place – I mean, not aligned with logic alone, but also with common human values. But equally, there is far too much superficial esteem in science – esteem taken from the ‘ability to attract research funding’ [viz. save the university money and generate revenue], ‘produce high impact research outputs’ [viz. make our academics look smart], and ‘contribute to enhancing research excellence in the institution’ [viz. push us upwards in the league tables]. What’s the trade-off between genuine solution-oriented research and research aimed at a cycle of perpetual funding? Is there one?

What is this science we’re in, anyway? Is there just one science? Is it a self-serving, funding-perpetuating science, or a science in the human interest? Or are there two sciences, multiple sciences?

The problem problem isn’t the only problem in science, however many sciences there might be. More than that, we have a problem of integrity in science – especially those of us who have ‘made it’. By ‘made it’, I mean those of us who have a decent income, relative material comfort, and reasonable job security. Those of us, in many cases, can’t seem to draw the line and say, “I’ve got my living out of science, now let me do science in the human interest”. We go on in our careers, winning more and more funding, publishing more and more papers, always adding each new accomplishment to our CV, eventually becoming a celebrity in academia. We don’t shut up when we retire either – we employ an army of naive postdocs to keep our publication record going. Somewhere along the line, when we ‘make it’, we’ve got to dismount from the manic ever-more-funding-ever-more-prestige academic bandwagon and start practicing science in the human interest – direct action instead of publication, public involvement instead of academic dissemination.

Another problem is knowing when to dismount the bandwagon.

Friend of WikiLeaks

July 2020
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The Final Countdown

Submission of PhD ThesisMay 1st, 2013
The big day is here. Joy to the world!